Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Ike's Kid

I was born the same year Dwight Eisenhower was elected President. I mention that not to impress you with how old I am ('and look, he can still dress himself! Well, sort of) but, rather, to help you understand what the dog-eared snapshot of America in my wallet looks like.

We lived in Suburbia. Dad, and all the other neighborhood fathers, got up early to get to the train station for important jobs in The City. Mom made Dad breakfast and drove him to the station and then came back and got all of us up, fed and dressed for school. She waited for the school bus with us and was there at the stop when we came home in the afternoon.

In Eisenhower's America you had air raid siren testing with under-your-desk and look-away-from-the-flash-at-the-window drills and no one found any of this odd or unusual because we had always done it and assumed we always would.

All the boys after school played war and all of us were brave soldiers with guns keeping the suburban sprawl backyards safe from all the enemies we saw on night-time TV shows.

Cold War kid that I was, I lived as a member, small and young, of one of the tribes of America, the middle class white American tribe. My circle of friends and playmates was so white we glowed in the dark. If I had any after-school playmates of another color, any color, I don't recall them.

I do remember Mrs. Henderson, my third grade teacher, a tall, black woman who was a dynamo in the classroom though I had no idea at the time why she worked so hard to prove herself. I figured it out many years later, long after being her student, proving (I guess) that not all learning happens in the classroom.

Growing up, I watched the civil rights movement on television newscasts and in the headlines of our daily newspapers (one in the morning and one that came out in the afternoon), on street corners in downtown and across our playgrounds.

As a teenager, grainy film footage brought The War (always capital letters) in Vietnam directly into our living rooms every night at dinner where it sat on our  trays along with dessert. The universe was getting more dangerous, the pace was getting faster and we were growing to assume our place in a world we were creating as we went along.

We were the children of the Greatest Generation and too often had the same sense of history a cat does. It's been decades since I thought about the "Huntley-Brinkley Report" or Wide-Wale bell-bottoms, just two artifacts of a long ago age of arrogant innocence (or ignorant arrogance if you want to be kind), when we took for granted everything we had, never wondering where it came from or how long it might last.

And now, as our children impatiently wait for us to relinquish the leadership roles we inherited from their grandparents, it's our turn, as did they, to wonder what it is we're leaving for them and what they will make and where they will go with whatever gifts we have given them.
-bill kenny

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